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Field Diary: Winter in Battle-Scarred Homs

Mark Choonoo, UNICEF Emergency Specialist, was in Homs recently and shares his first-hand account on the situation there and the impact the destruction wrought by the conflict has on children and families.

Homs has been the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in Syria’s 22-month conflict, with hundreds of thousands of residents displaced.

While some parts of the city have been untouched by conflict and seemingly carry on as normal, other areas exhibit the unmistakable signs of intense battles. Buildings scarred with bullet holes and shell holes, blown out windows, and rubble. From what I have seen in the suburb of Baba Amro, I would estimate that as many as 2/3 of buildings have been damaged, while others have collapsed completely.

A UNICEF staff member talks with children at a displaced persons shelter in Homs. ©UNICEF/Syria 2012

Yet there are signs of life, even here in this battered war zone. Baba Amro is now relatively calm, with some families making their way back, trying to rebuild their lives. But one still hears the sounds of explosions and gunfire in the distance, and the cold winter weather is adding to the misery.

It’s bitterly cold, with overnight temperatures dropping to below freezing. Many children I saw were wearing only light clothes and sandals, or only socks without shoes. All the children I talked to complained about the cold. Many expressed sadness about friends who had gone away and not returned, but despite all of this, they seemed happy to be home.

Many families, however, are living in extremely basic conditions, using plastic sheeting to cover broken windows and doors, and sleeping on bare concrete floors or thin mattresses. There is very little heating, and a lack of diesel fuel urgently needed for heating. People are trying to make the best of the conditions, but one can imagine how cold it must be, especially at night. Other families take refuge in collective shelters, some of which are being supported by local business people.

Although water was functioning in the areas I went to, electricity seems to come only in short spurts. One butcher shop I saw had no electricity for freezers, so animals were slaughtered daily, their carcasses hung in the frigid cold outside the shop.

I visited a local health center that had been destroyed and is no longer in use. This clinic is just one example of the destruction of basic community facilities creating a major gap for returnees, particularly those with chronic illnesses or children who need access to health care. There is also a shortage of medical supplies, and many health staff have left the area, leaving a vacuum of qualified personnel. The cold winter weather, coupled with poor shelter, will only contribute to an increase in winter illnesses, especially among children in Homs

Although some schools have been damaged, many continue to run as normal. I visited a school that is still functioning and talked to a teacher who has around 50 students in her class.

The most urgent needs in Homs are the response to the harsh winter in Syria. With 4 million people across the country affected, close to half of them children, there is a massive need for humanitarian supplies to make sure they are warm and safe. They urgently need shoes and winter clothes.

UNICEF and other UN agencies have provided assistance to the area through partner organizations. While I was writing these lines, new emergency supplies reached Homs including 5,000 quilts, 1,400 blankets, and 2,000 family hygiene kits. UNICEF has also recently provided high-energy biscuits for 6,400 children in Homs and supported safe learning spaces to allow children to continue their education.

To support UNICEF’s emergency relief efforts for children affected by the crisis in Syria, please visit our donation page.

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